giovanni’s room, by james baldwin

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Oh this is so damn good.

I think what keeps this book from working to perfect effect is the fact that it’s essentially a story with one extended climax. Tragedy upon tragedy, every little romantic artifact offered up for the viewer’s contemplation and then cast dramatically aside. All that stuff about the room and being in it and not being able to get out of it and how it is tiny and stuffy and full of gross mouse pellets. The voiceover — and, oh, boy is there one — works best if you imagine it in the mode of Morgan Freeman, gloomily narrating the end of all civilization. And the events of the story are, au naturel, really, really depressive. It gets tiring fast, hardly being alowed to breathe. The problem continues in In Another Country, which I’m working through right now.

I think this effect of breathlessness can be attributed in part to Baldwin’s prose style, which is really so wonderfully rhythmic it is like being rocked by swells in a moonlit, mist-dampened bayou, lulling you with its beauty, AT THE SAME TIME that it is jacking you up on these incredible, brain-jolting images, turns of phrases, ways of evoking character, tragedy won’t-stop-can’t-stop!, and heart-cracking conflict. I want to keep reading because I want to see how Baldwin views the world; his vision is so intoxicatingly meaningful. Everything! I would read his description of a phonebook, a desk lamp, a snub-nosed pencil! Whatever lets the novelist zero in on emotional reverb as he chronicles life’s foibles, absurdities, moments of levity and joy, Baldwin has it. He has it in spades. It is all over him, it emanates from his pores and is apparently an effortless thing that you won’t be able to duplicate or even shabbily imitate because HE’S A GENIUS and you are not. This man’s the real thing. One can only clutch one’s head and moan in abject jealousy.

Representative quotes:

“What happened was that, all unconscious of what this ennui meant, I wearied of the motion, wearied of the joyless seas of alcohol, wearied of the blunt, bluff, hearty, and totally meaningless friendships, wearied of wandering through the forests of desperate women, wearied of the work which fed me only in the most brutally literal sense.”

“She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety – as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.”


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